I have a drinking problem, a diet problem, and a coke problem. More accurately, I have a drinking Diet Coke problem. In rehab, you beg your visitors to bring you all kinds of things: packs of gum, cartons of cigarettes, more cartons of cigarettes. I begged my family and friends to bring me Diet Coke. Every Saturday, my parents dutifully lugged a fridge pack of Diet Coke up the hill to the visiting area (thank you, Mom and Dad. For lots of things, but mostly for the Diet Coke). It may not have been the healthiest choice of beverage, but it was a solid step up from what I had been consuming.
It wasn’t until I got sober that I came to truly appreciate the deliciousness of Diet Coke. This is largely due to the fact that before then, I almost never drank Diet Coke unadulterated; I was always mixing it with something toxic, flammable and certain to get me into trouble. Once sober, however, my appreciation for the drink grew exponentially. One of the many things nobody tells you about navigating early recovery is that you’ll have to figure out what to order when you’re out once booze is clearly off the table. Sparkling water gets old after a while (there are only so many times you can be the person in your group of friends who says “just water for me” without feeling as flat as week-old Crystal Geyser). And while caffeine is the standard acceptable drug for recovering addicts and alcoholics, too much coffee turns my digestive system into molten lava. So the challenge is this: What beverage is available at pretty much every bar and restaurant, contains some (but not too much) caffeine and doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup (though, I acknowledge, it does contain artificial sweeteners that may, over time, make me grow a third ear)? One answer: delicious Diet Coke.
Every recovering alcoholic needs a go-to non-alcoholic beverage, and Diet Coke is mine. (I’m not alone; “True Blood” actor Stephen Moyer called the soda “the Patron Saint drink for alcoholics” in a People magazine interview in which he talked about his 14-year sobriety.) By the time I left rehab and moved into my sober living house, I was keeping one fridge pack in the refrigerator and another in the car, so I could immediately restock when I ran out. Sure, all that carbonated, syrupy goodness was probably turning my intestines to radioactive ash, but, well, it was so delicious. My blood-to-Diet Coke ratio during that first year of sobriety would likely have made any doctor weep.
At some point, though, I had to face the harsh reality that Diet Coke is not, in fact, a viable substitute for water. It was tough. My previous attempts to moderate, well, anything hadn’t gone particularly well.
But there are many ways in which Diet Coke is different for me from alcohol. Here’s my favorite: I can now moderate my intake of Diet Coke. All the ways in which I tried to keep my drinking under control actually work when it come to this beverage: I don’t keep it in my apartment, I only drink it if I am out with friends, and even then I try to consume a glass of water in between “drinks.” Also unlike my alcohol consumption, when it comes to Diet Coke, I only drink the good stuff. That syrupy fountain stuff? Shameful. I realize this is a slightly high-faluting position to take for someone who used to lap up the dregs of a bottle of Popov like a thirsty dog, but sometimes progress masquerades as snobbery. If it doesn’t come from that frosty silver can, if polar bears aren’t in the commercials during the holiday season, then I want no part of it.
All joking aside, it’s incredibly important for me to have a slightly wicked indulgence. One of the wonderful things about sobriety is learning how to take pleasure in things that don’t result in waking up in a Dumpster. I imagine that Diet Coke is for me what a nice glass of wine or a beer is for someone not addicted to alcohol: an occasional, satisfying treat. Something that makes sobriety just a little bit sweeter.